(Simon Hattenstone’s article appeared in the Guardian, 6/11; via Pam Green; Photo: Paapa Essiedu: ‘Before the first day on a job, I have a nervous breakdown.’ Photograph: Elliott Wilcox/The Guardian. Clothes: Fendi. Necklace: Alighieri.)

The I May Destroy You star talks about politics; his great friend Michaela Coel; dealing with drama school racism; and why even as a leading man he still struggles with self-confidence

Paapa Essiedu greets me at his local caff in London. He has a cold drink in his hand, and a bag featuring Basquiat-style daubings hangs over one shoulder. Essiedu is wearing huge shades, black nail varnish, a designer T-shirt that translates Jamaican patois into the Queen’s English, an open shirt and the coolest two-tone raincoat you’ve ever seen. He seems eye-poppingly confident.

And so he should be. Essiedu is establishing himself as one of the finest actors of his generation. His punk, graffiti-artist Hamlet for the Royal Shakespeare Company was unforgettable, not least for his astonishing, tearful delivery of the “To be or not to be” soliloquy. He was heartbreaking as the hook up-addicted rape victim Kwame in Michaela Coel’s brilliant TV drama I May Destroy You, and complex in Jack Thorne’s Kiri, which dealt with the abduction of a black child from her white adoptive family in Bristol. As reporter Ed Washburn in the TV series Press, he constantly kept you guessing – is he too noble for the scuzzy world of the tabloids or the most unscrupulous of the lot? Essiedu has a rare suppleness as an actor, both verbal and physical, that keeps him one step ahead of his audience. Now he’s starring in Sky’s existential sci-fi thriller series The Lazarus Project as a regular fella who discovers he has the ability to turn back time. Essiedu gives another beautifully nuanced performance. As George, he is bewildered, soulful and utterly believable, anchoring both the premise and the series.

Well, you’re a very good actor, I say. “Do you really think so?” he asks. I assume he’s fishing for compliments. Well, don’t you? “Erm … I don’t know. I honestly don’t know. I just started a job yesterday and on the day before the first day on every job, I have a nervous breakdown, thinking: this is the one where people will find me out, see that what’s underneath the car bonnet doesn’t work.” Genuinely? “Genuine!” he says fiercely.

Essiedu in The Lazarus Project

When you say nervous breakdown, how bad are we talking? “Like, really bad. I need a lot of support from the people who are close to me to drag me into the car to go to work on that first day. It’s generally only the first day or the first week.” You really don’t want to go? “Yes. I’m like: I’m going to fuck it up. I read, ‘What are you doing here?’ on everybody’s face. Or, ‘Oh my God I’ve made a huge mistake in inviting you to be in this’ in their body language. You know that thing when you project what your brain wants you to see on somebody who is probably just having a cup of tea? I read things into them that they are hopefully not thinking.” He comes to a stop. “Maybe they are thinking it.” Blimey, I think – we’ve only been talking for a couple of minutes.

He tells me he’s starving, and always has Colombian eggs when he’s here. “But I’ve got a real phobia of people watching me eat.” I tell him I won’t watch, and can’t see anyway because the sun’s so strong. “Do you want to borrow these?” he says, pointing to his shades.

Essiedu, 32, was born in London to Ghanaian parents. His father, Tony, a lawyer, returned to Ghana when he was a baby. His mother, Selina, who taught fashion and design at adult education colleges, was a single parent; he was an only child. They were a team, adored each other, relied on each other, and couldn’t be closer. She struggled for money, but Essiedu won a scholarship to a private school. She encouraged him to work hard, and he did – for himself and for her.

I ask if he has a photo of her. He brings out his phone. “Do you think I look like her?” He does, and it’s obvious he wants me to say so. His eyes burn with emotion. What made her so special? “She was just an amazingly loving, strong, resilient and, for me, inspiring person.”

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